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How Israel Resembles the Apartheid South African Regime I Struggled Against

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A poster of Nelson Mandela is seen behind a metal gate, December 11, 2013.
A poster of Nelson Mandela is seen behind a metal gate, December 11, 2013.Credit: AP

On August 15, 1985, a global television audience of 200 million gathered to watch what was to be a momentous address. In Natal, South Africa, Prime Minister P.W. Botha stood before his National Party convention whose rapt members waited for the bombshell he was expected to drop: the announcement of a series of bold reforms to South Africa’s imperiled apartheid system. South Africa’s Foreign Minister had just conducted meetings with world leaders during which he had assured them that big changes were coming. 

Instead, the much-touted "Rubicon" speech rates as one of the biggest political anti-climaxes of all time. Botha came out, wagged his finger, admonished his party and the world not to push him too far and pontificated in his usual rambling, long-winded fashion on the swart gevaar and the rooi gevaar (the dangers of blacks and communists.)

What caused the man they called the "Big Crocodile" to backtrack so dramatically from his expected course? Had he become so angered by the expectations of the media and foreign frenzy surrounding the speech, that he had decided to dig his heels in and davka deny them the satisfaction? And what can we learn about the direction Israel’s prime minister is taking his country from this lesson in political history?

I believe the explanation is simple: At some point a leader must come to fervently believe his own propaganda. Botha had propagated the mortal dangers of a black takeover of the beloved fatherland for so long and had become so enamored of the siege mentality that he had artfully imparted to his people in speech after finger-wagging speech that he could not bring himself to relinquish his own fear. 

The loathing had taken root so deeply inside of him as to become a mantra. Even though Botha knew that his party, his country and the entire world were courting him to make the inevitable changes, not only morally but for South Africa’s very survival, he just could not do it.

I recall the sounds and smells of 1980s South Africa so vividly. I can easily summon my teenage self in Johannesburg, living under and grappling with the regime of fear that the White South African government had become. My most palpable memory? The debilitating frustration of trying to conduct a rational conversation with fellow white South Africans about why apartheid had to end. The sound bites abounded: "giving away the country to the blacks and the communists," "the rest of Africa was a basket case" or "our blacks had it so good comparatively."

I faced an outright refusal to contemplate that the alternative did not mean the destruction of our country, that rights and freedoms are basics that no people should ever be expected to live without, that denying people liberty in the name of our "security" was not only immoral but mutually destructive. I was painted naive. How could I fail to see, they countered, that we were surrounded by enemies who would slaughter us in our beds given half a chance?

Last week the Israeli parliament passed a law that would bar entry to anyone who advocates for boycotts against Israel, including those that call only for boycotting Israeli settlements. Since the current right-wing coalition government was formed in mid 2015, I have had many deja vu moments, but none as evocative as upon the passing of this law. 

The old South African regime was a champion at banning. It banned people, organizations, publications, art, music, anything that dared raise a voice against its rule. Israel, for most of its existence, has not been like that. As in the best democratic societies, voices of opposition have generally been allowed to exist, even welcomed. Loud and vocal media, academic, and cultural practitioners have been free to shout their opposition from the rooftops if they so desired. 

No more. In July of 2016 a law targeting NGOs was passed in the Knesset. The law demands that all organizations receiving foreign funding disclose this in their interactions with government officials and in their advocacy literature and public reports. Almost every NGO affected belongs to the left. 

Taken together, these laws represent an assault on both the internal and external opponents of current right-wing policies. The effect is to dampen free speech and to increase the isolation and delegitimization of human rights advocates both locally and abroad – an all-round weakening of Israel’s once dominant liberal democratic values.

Netanyahu has evoked our imminent existential demise so many times, he has internalized his own propaganda. The remarks from forty years ago could have been uttered by him today. The language of fear, threat, the siege mentality, has become the dominant Israeli story. It is what keeps him in power. Whether he is invoking Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS, or even Abu Mazen’s Palestinian Authority, we are surrounded, embattled and endangered. Without his strong stance against our numerous enemies, we shall surely perish. Even while he speaks of new regional alliances, of shifts towards our positions by our prior enemies, he cannot let go of this rhetoric of siege and fear. This law is the legislative embodiment of that.

While it may be easier to defend a literal wall that prevents one’s citizens from being blown up in cafes, nightclubs and on buses, we are now building ideological walls to keep our "enemies" out. The battle lines are drawn. If you do not accept everything we do, you are against us and may no longer speak. We will shut you out and shut you up. We will wag our finger and warn you not to push us too far.        

Lisa Ohayon is a clinical psychologist. She has a Masters in Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution from the IDC, Herzliya and has been an activist since her student days in apartheid South Africa. She is currently writing a guide for the perplexed on the Syrian Civil War and its consequences for liberal democracy. Follow her on Twitter: @LisaOhayon

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